24.31 – Elizabeth, Edwin, William and John Hewitt

This story was initially written up for our 2023 Remembrance Sunday tour, so it will start focusing exclusively on Edwin Hewitt, and then loop back at the end to discuss William, Elizabeth, and John’s lives.

Edwin Hewitt was born at 17 East Street on the 18th April 1874, the son of William Hewitt, a labourer, and his wife Elizabeth (nee Parker). He was the eldest of their six children.  Elizabeth had been married before, to David Horsfall who died in 1872, and they had had 4 children, 3 of whom were still surviving when Elizabeth married William Hewitt.

Edwin must have started working on a part time basis at a very young age, as in January 1885 it was reported in the Todmorden and District News that the head teacher of Roomfield School, where he was a half time pupil, had refused to recognise him as a half-timer when he changed jobs (from factory work to working in an oatcake bakehouse) until a labour certificate was received. Edwin was 11 years old at the time. We can see from the 1891 Census that three out of six of the Hewitt children were employed, and not even necessarily the three oldest; likely those who were the most scholastically gifted were able to continue as full-timers at school, and the others had to work as half-timers or leave as soon as they turned 13.

You’d think that working and going to school would leave a young lad without much time or energy for himself, but Edwin was a highly motivated person. In May 1885 he found himself in the news again, this time for stealing goose eggs (with three friends) from a poultry cote at Doghouse.  The cote belonged to Peter Ratcliffe, formerly landlord of the Golden Lion and then the landlord at the Black Swan, now Polished Knob, and who is buried over in the vaults. The four boys all argued as to which of them was precisely responsible for which elements of the act, but in short, a trapdoor in the roof was opened and the goose eggs were made off with, and hidden all over in an attempt to avoid their discovery. All four boys were discharged but cautioned that if they ever committed a similar offence, they would probably be whipped with a birch rod and “sent somewhere else” before being allowed home. Edwin’s parents had to pay costs of 10 shillings.

Todmorden Advertiser, May 22nd 1885

It doesn’t look as though Edwin got into any more trouble with the police again as he disappears from the newspapers for several years after this point. As we said, in 1891 most of the Hewitt and Horsfall children were working and Edwin’s trade then is given as a mechanic.

 The next time he was mentioned in the news was in February 1893 when he attended the 2nd Volunteer Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers Prize Giving at the Drill Hall in Dalton Street. Quite a few familiar names appear in the article about the event; Fred Dennett, who those of you who attended our Holocaust Memorial Day will remember hearing about, as well as Frank Ashworth, who we’ve heard about just before. Edwin is listed as a Private.

Between 1893 and 1900 Edwin must have formally joined the Royal Engineers because early in January 1900 he received call up papers as Sapper Edwin E. Hewitt to rejoin them and head to South Africa. We’ve searched a few sites but his service records aren’t on any of them so we know little about his skills or his longer service within the army.

On the 6th January 1900 Edwin left Todmorden with a send off that we would love to have seen. If we know anything about him from our research, it’s that he was an incredibly popular young man. It was reported in the paper the following Friday that it was the largest send off that many had seen thus far, and that the Todmorden Old Brass Band played music, the railway platform was swamped by well-wishers who the station staff were unable to keep out, and that the Oddfellows and Social Clubs had both given Edwin money and gifts and promised to pay his subscriptions until he returned. And so, he became part of what is known formally as the Second Boer War.

Todmorden District News, January 12th 1900

Fought between 1899 and 1902, this war started after conflicts between British workers who were keen to become part of the gold rush and the Afrikaaner descendants of Dutch colonists. Ultimately the British won due to what would now be called a “scorched earth” policy carried out on Boer civilians, but the fighting on both sides was intense. The British lost roughly 26,000 soldiers and sent home 75,000 sick or wounded soldiers; the Boers lost only 6,000 soldiers, but 24,000 other soldiers were captured and sent overseas for internment, and 46,000 Afrikaaner and Black African civilians were killed.

Prior to finally being sent to South Africa in March 1900 Edwin was given 4 days leave and managed to return to Todmorden for the final time. He was young and probably didn’t realise what a nightmare he was walking into when he left Tod the final time and headed towards the coast for his transport. On June 22nd 1900 the Todmorden District News reported Edwin’s death in South Africa on June 19th from enteric fever. His remains are in the Anglo-Boer War Garden of Remembrance, Estcourt. He had been in South Africa for a grand total of three months and was only 26 years old.

Photo from the CWGC website

Edwin wasn’t in South Africa long, but he must have seen some action as he was awarded the South Africa Medal and the Laings Nek clasp (see link below for further information and a picture of it) which was awarded to “all troops of the Natal Field Force employed in operations, and north of an east and west line through Newcastle between June 2nd and 9th, 1900”. Up until the day Edwin died, in other words.

Back, now, to his parents.

William Hewitt was born in Barton, near Altrincham, in late 1845 or early 1846. He would later say his father’s name was Arthur and that he was a watchmaker, but we can’t find any Arthur Hewitts anywhere around the correct time. We did find an Allen Hewitt who was a cordwainer (or shoemaker) with a son named William who is the correct age. Allen, his wife Fanny, and their seven children were living at Tabley Superior near Knutsford in 1851. By 1861 William had left home and was working as an agricultural labourer at nearby Sudlow Lodge.

His future wife Elizabeth also started off life outside of Todmorden. She was born a few years earlier in 1837 at Castle Thorp in Buckinghamshire to John and Martha Parker. We’ve struggled to trace her early years but by 1861 she was living in Todmorden, lodging along with another power loom weaver at the home of Sarah Bentley at 2 The Durn, near Lane Head above Cross Stone. The next year she married David Horsfall, another weaver, and the two settled at 17 East Street.

David died in June 1872, aged 38, and was buried at Cross Stone. Elizabeth was left with three young children, Martha, Herbert and Walter, the last being only just a year old. So a year later she and William Hewitt married and William moved in with her to 17 East Street and they began their own family. Together they had six children of their own. Edwin was the eldest, and John, born in 1883, was the youngest. Their first five children were born in the first seven years of their marriage!

William found work with the Local Board and became a general labourer for them, finding mention here and there in the newspapers when his accounts were paid, or being sent to clear some drains along with “as many men and he requires” – a sign that he was trusted to supervise and was seen as a reliable worker. Meanwhile, son John was going to school, eventually leaving to become a cotton weaver.

The family stayed at 17 East Street until Elizabeth died on New Year’s Day in 1894 aged 56, after which they moved to 4 East Street, the address at which Edwin was registered when he died. William remarried a year later to Minnie Blakey Fielden, herself also a widow. Minnie brought an older daughter to the family, and the two had a child of their own, Bessie, in 1896. One wonders how big the houses at East Street really were…

John’s life is an interesting mystery to us; from what we’ve been able to find, he was a conscientious young man who earned a great deal of respect throughout his life. As we see in 1901, he had four sisters living at home – Sarah and Alice, his full sisters, Bessie his half-sister, and Harriet his stepsister. By 1911 Harriet had left, William had died, and it was just Minnie, John, Sarah, Alice, and Bessie. And Sarah has a note next to her entry, all the way at the very end – “nearly blind”.

From the Todmorden District News,, July 7th 1916:

Sarah was blind and had been since the age of four, and was seemingly entirely dependent on John. In his own words, “Originally … we were a family of ten – I was the youngest – and they all went, leaving me and my sister to adapt our lives one to the other. I have given up everything for her, and it is not that I am trying to shelter myself behind her now. It is simply because without me she couldn’t fight her own way. She has no stand-by but me.” The article also mentions one brother who had died – Edwin – and that the rest were scattered. John did not have to go to war. He and Sarah carried on in their home at 6 Lower George Street, John working for Charles Crabtree & Co. at Ferney Mills. They later moved to 12 Temperance Street, following stepmother Minnie’s death, we presume to house-share with their half-sister Bessie (who also worked for Crabtree’s).

That conscientiousness, though, was not from some sort of deep faith – quite the opposite in fact, as John was an outspoken atheist! In 1913 he wrote a scathing letter to the newspaper defending atheism and atheists against historical and current attacks (linguistic and physical) by the established church against anyone who dared to stand up and point out errors or misleading statements in the Bible or by religious leaders.

Later, in 1923, he gave a talk at the “Bourillion Football Club” (possibly linked with the Oddfellows Hall – do you know? Let us know!) on the topic “What has Christianity done for women?” which was described as an “animated discussion” and one that attracted people “from many parts of the borough” who attended so they could argue with him. Presumably his stance was “not much”! We’d love to have sat in on one of his talks.

John’s death in 1934 was marked in the newspaper by a glowing obituary. Described as self-educated and a born leader, “hard as his native hills and moorlands”, maybe the best summing up of him in the obituary is this: “to be in his company was to be lifted high above the hum-drum of every-day life”. But we’ll let you read it.

And now, John lies at rest, in a Church of England cemetery…well, we can’t have everything can we?

One final note: his sister Sarah, whose welfare was so important to him, outlived him by 18 years. She died in December 1952 and is buried at Christ Church, although we don’t know where. It’s entirely possible her ashes were interred here along with the rest of her family.

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